ANALYSIS: Japan seeks tough stance, U.S. pushes cooperation in dealing with China

October 04, 2013


China, as expected, was the main theme of a Japan-U.S. security meeting, but differences emerged over how to deal with the rising power.

Japan, currently feuding with China over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, wanted to send a forceful message to Beijing at the Security Consultative Committee meeting on Oct. 3 in Tokyo. But the United States, whose economic ties with China are growing, pushed for reconciliation and cooperation with Beijing to ensure stability in East Asia.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera represented Japan at the meeting. For the first time, both the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, and the U.S. defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, attended the meeting in Tokyo.

Although the attendance of Kerry and Hagel underscored the importance placed by Washington on its alliance with Japan, the two U.S. secretaries gave an early indication that Japan would not get its way at the meeting.

Before the talks, Kerry and Hagel visited the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery near the Imperial Palace on Oct. 3, the first by U.S. Cabinet members, according to cemetery officials. The cemetery contains the remains of about 360,000 soldiers of the Japanese military as well as civilians who died abroad during World War II and were never claimed by their family members.

Kerry and Hagel presented flowers and observed a moment of silence.

Their visit may have been intended to demonstrate the importance of reconciliation in light of the strained relations between Japan, China and South Korea due to differences in historical perceptions of World War II.

The national cemetery is not connected to any specific religion and differs greatly from Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes Japan’s war dead along with 14 Class-A war criminals.

Visits by Cabinet members to Yasukuni Shrine inevitably infuriate China and South Korea. Speculation is rife over how many members of the Abe Cabinet will visit Yasukuni Shrine for its autumn festival that starts on Oct. 17.

During the actual Security Consultative Committee meeting, commonly called the two-plus-two meeting, the U.S. side also emphasized reconciliation.

At the joint news conference following the meeting, Onodera touched upon the strained relations with China, but neither Kerry nor Hagel directly mentioned Beijing.

When asked by a reporter about U.S. relations with China, Kerry said, “A rising China is welcome as long as that China wants to engage according to international standards and values.”

Sources said considerable time was taken in deciding what wording to use regarding the Senkakus and China in the joint statement of the Security Consultative Committee.

Although Japan clearly wanted to paint a picture of Tokyo and Washington facing Beijing over the Senkakus, the United States does not want to become engaged in a military confrontation with China over the uninhabited islands.

In the end, no direct reference was made about China. The joint statement only said that “coercive and destabilizing behaviors in the maritime domain” were “threats to peace and security.”

A high-ranking U.S. government official said Washington did not feel the need to touch upon the Senkakus issue in the statement because it had expressed its position to both Japan and China.


One point of agreement in the two-plus-two meeting was to revise the Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation by the end of 2014.

“It will be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate to both domestic and foreign audiences the medium- and long-term direction for a strong Japan-U.S. alliance,” Kishida said at the meeting.

The guidelines define the roles of the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military during military conflicts in Japan or surrounding areas.

The guidelines were first compiled in 1978 during the Cold War over concerns of a possible invasion by the Soviet Union. When the guidelines were revised in 1997, the main focus was a possible military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Both the compilation and first revision of the guidelines were called for by the United States.

This time, however, Japan was the one to strongly request revisions, in light of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and the tensions with China over the Senkakus.

Japan not only wanted the United States to continue its deep engagement in ensuring security in East Asia, but Tokyo also sought to expand its own military role in the region.

As part of those plans, the Abe administration received a U.S. endorsement for its moves toward lifting its ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense.

The joint statement said Washington “welcomed” these Japanese efforts.

But another measure the Abe administration has been seeking never made it into the joint statement. That was consideration toward allowing the SDF to possess the capability to attack enemy missile bases.

Under current defense cooperation guidelines, Japan’s role is to serve as a “shield” befitting the SDF’s exclusively defensive stance. The move to possess first-strike capability would mean the SDF would also have a role as a “spear” that until now only the U.S. military possessed.

However, sources said the U.S. officials at the two-plus-two meeting did not respond to a Japanese comment about possessing the capability to attack enemy bases.

“The Obama administration does not want to become involved in that issue,” Michael Green, a senior vice president and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “Even if Japan possessed the capability to attack enemy bases, it would be limited so it would be the United States that would have to deal with any counterattack.”

Officials in Washington are concerned that allowing Japan to possess first-strike and other offensive capabilities would only worsen its relations with China and South Korea, another important U.S. ally.


Beijing and Seoul are wary of any move by Japan to expand its military role in the alliance with the United States.

China is convinced that it, not North Korea, is Japan’s true target.

State-run media in China have described Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statements about militarism and his plan for “aggressive pacifism” as nothing more than a disguise for increasing military spending. They say Abe’s words are further evidence that Japan was tilting rightward.

China also wants to fend off attempts to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

“China wants to establish a new major power relationship with the United States from the Asia-Pacific region,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently said.

There is the possibility that China could apply greater pressure on Japan.

South Korea has also criticized Japan’s push for a greater military role.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry submitted a report on Sept. 16 to a National Assembly committee that touched upon Japan’s defense policy and moves toward constitutional revisions. It said Japan “must move in the direction of removing doubts and concerns among its neighbors that arise from past history.”

The ministry also revealed that it had informed Japan that it was taking a stance of seeking transparency from Japan if it sought to contribute to peace and stability in the region.

Having come under Japanese colonial rule, South Korea remains concerned about Japan’s military capabilities.

“In order for Japan to gain the understanding of its neighbors, there will be a need for sufficient explanation and transparency,” a South Korean government source said. “If matters are handled incorrectly, ties between South Korea and Japan would further worsen, and that could affect cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan."

(This article was written by Takashi Oshima, Koji Sonoda and Akihiro Yamada in Tokyo, Nanae Kurashige in Beijing and Akihiko Kaise in Seoul.)

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From left, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera at the prime minister's office on Oct. 3 (Shogo Koshida)

From left, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera at the prime minister's office on Oct. 3 (Shogo Koshida)

  • From left, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera at the prime minister's office on Oct. 3 (Shogo Koshida)
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